Syria Football Team: the side giving hope and purpose to refugees in Coventry, Midlands, United Kingdom

Team Syria: the side giving hope and purpose to refugees in Coventry

Mustafa escaped Homs three years ago with nothing but playing in the final of the Communities World Cup at St George’s Park has helped rebuild his life
Team Syria walk out for the final of the Communities World Cup at St. George’s Park
 Team Syria walk out for the final of the Communities World Cup at St. George’s Park. Photograph: Fabio De Paola for the Guardian
AIWA! NO!“I left because of the war. My city is very dangerous. I lost everything. I lost my house, my car, my work. After the war I stopped everything. Playing football, work. Everything. I lost friends. I lost 500-600 friends. Sometimes I miss them, because life in my country is very difficult and dangerous.”

The words coming from Mustafa do not really match the demeanour of the smiling, sweet man delivering them. You would never guess he escaped Homs in Syria three years ago with nothing, having gone through unimaginable horrors, eventually making it to the UK. But on a chilly night in October, he led a team of fellow refugees to the final of the Communities World Cup, on the freshly laid indoor pitch at St George’s Park in Burton upon Trent.

You have to double-take slightly when you meet Mustafa. A likeness to a certain Uruguayan forward, a big toothy smile and relentless running, might leave opponents briefly thinking they are facing the mother of all ringers. “People would tell me Suárez, Suárez,” he says, grinning that grin.

Mustafa might not be quite good enough for Barcelona but he did play football at home. To a pretty decent level too – he was a semi-professional on the books of Al-Karamah, eight-times Syrian title-winners. When he came to the UK three years ago, he started as many did by playing in the park with friends, before he heard about the Positive Youth Foundation (PYF), a charity based in Coventry.

The team who sprang from PYF started out pretty casually, kickabouts designed just for fun, and to build a community around football. Then they heard about the Communities World Cup, a tournament for teams in the West Midlands but representing nations from around the world, and the team grew and grew, almost entirely by word of mouth.

“Some boys joined the football team within three days of arriving in Coventry, before they’d even signed up for school,” says Cormac Whelan, the PYF health and sports coordinator, and the man who organised the team. “It’s great the way they’re looking after each other, and adapting into a new environment.”

Mustafa’s is one of many similar stories in this team of refugees, of fleeing across continents to escape desperate situations. Some would find their way to one of the vast, city-like refugee camps in Lebanon, with no idea of where their families were.

Mustafa looks to get on the ball in the final
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Mustafa looks to get on the ball in the final. Photograph: Fabio De Paola for the Guardian

Some would be reunited with their loved ones in those camps but many would have to settle in the UK knowing nobody, with no support. That is where PYF and the football team come in.

Until the summer they had not played 11-a-side as a team but came together to enter the CWC loosely under the name “Team Syria” but by the end up to 10 nationalities had represented them.

The CWC was the brainchild of Obayed Hussain, who among other things was the Birmingham FA equality officer until recently, to run alongside the other, slightly higher-profile World Cup happening in Russia this year. Teams representing 19 communities around the West Midlands expressed an interest and eight were put into the tournament.

“The whole purpose wasn’t to see how good the football was,” Hussain says. “It was about providing that opportunity to those communities to celebrate their cultures and their love for football.

 

©The Guardian